She was my fairy godmother, and she yodeled her way into my heart.

My godmother, Aunt Alda, and I came full circle in sharing and identifying with each other as we “grew up” together. Inherent to the circle of life is a celebration of the grace and beauty of those who nurture our inner spirit, and Aunt Alda certainly nurtured mine.

She was a small woman, standing not quite five feet tall and weighing around 90 pounds, with strawberry blond hair, amber eyes, and very fair skin. Her immediate family includes two amazing sons and their wonderful wives, along with respective children and grandchildren.

My aunt left northern Italy around 1913, at three years of age, with her mother and older siblings. Her father met them when they arrived at Ellis Island, and within ten years, had purchased a home for them in New Jersey. With eight children in the family, Aunt Alda went to work when she was still in high school. Her job, as a foreman in New York’s garment district, led to her contribution during World War II: supervising the construction and testing of parachutes for the US military. Though married with two children, she continued to work, echoing the Horatio Alger myth that effort and tenacity glean their own reward.

When I was growing up, our houses were a block apart. She was my Zia Bumbelina (Aunt Little Doll), my Queen Esmeralda, and she called me her Peck’s Bad Girl. As a child, the name did not thrill me. Her legacy, however, has stayed with me to this very moment, represented by the garden, the imp and the arts.

The garden. The garden was one of the earliest points of communication between us, starting when I was a kindergartener and continuing for many years. Each spring, our town held a flower show. The blue ribbons I received for my bouquets reflected the glory of my aunt’s early blooms, particularly her pansies and lilacs. My mom, aunt, and I would take our requisite tour of my aunt’s garden and choose the flowers that were especially suited to my imminent “creations.”  Her garden gave me an early love for my own little patch of flowers and the feeling of community that I got from sharing it. Later in the season, Aunt Alda’s renowned Chinese lantern flowers appeared. The papery orange flowers, perched delicately on their stalks, were always a surprise. After work, my aunt could be found lovingly tending her trees, bushes, and flowers. However, if I picked a handful of ignominious weeds en route to her house, she would accept them with a kiss and a thank you. With respect due the rarest rose, she would put the weeds in a “special” vase on the kitchen windowsill.

At 95, her garden was still important to her. The ubiquitous Chinese lantern flowers had traveled with her 30 years earlier to the retirement community which became her home. In her 90s, leaning on my arm, my aunt would again provide a tour of her “garden,” a small area enhancing the entrance to her home. Each season, she enthusiastically described how my cousin had planted colorful annuals and picked the troublesome weeds. For her—and now for me—the garden reflects meaningful values: the inspiration to create, reverence for the beauty of nature, and perseverance in the light of impinging forces.

The imp. Aunt Alda danced vivaciously while yodeling during the family’s Sunday-afternoon cocktail gatherings, as I accompanied her on the piano. (Alda’s dancing required no help from alcohol.) Grandma’s lips pursed in disapproval and her two sisters shook silently with laughter as Aunt Alda cavorted around the living room floor. The frisson of naughtiness was refreshing among the sisters, who set a high bar for perfectionism and reserve. I recall Alda at 89 playacting with me in a foreign language that had no meaning attached to the words for either of us, while her sister, my aunt Gilda, stared with incredulity. I simply had to walk through the front door and initiate the pretend play. Aunt Alda responded with an alacrity belying her age. Mischief was her game, and we loved adding points to her side of the sibling rivalry. Knowing I had a ready playmate simply activated my own personal pixie. Although we saw each other on a regular basis, my aunt and I were always ready to begin a new game. Aunt Alda embraced the imp at every age, and was willing to risk her “image” to provide innocent fun.

The arts. Aunt Alda used color, movement, and music to express and enjoy the world. This included a flamingo-pink living room; glitter-covered fairies dancing on a box holding the stuffed toy  poodle, Petunia; opening a community show by bursting through lush red velvet curtains. All of these things were delights to me. The arts magically claim my love as an observer and a participant, and virtually every day I find reasons to appreciate my aunt’s gift.

As Aunt Alda grew older, she had less clarity about the external world. She continued, however, to be my “little buddy” and to rise to the occasion when important issues were discussed. One day, she asked that I hold her hands and sing to her. Holding hands helped anchor her in the present moment and gave her comfort. Her caregiver sat next to us. What an audience! Within seconds they were both asleep.

When she awoke, Aunt Alda explained that the nickname she gave me as a child, “Peck’s Bad Girl,”was the very same that had been given to her as a little girl. It was our last conversation, and her final bequest. Now, Aunt Alda travels with me in my heart and mind as a reminder of all there is to claim, enjoy and share in life.

I hope there is someone in your life, past or present, who has awakened your spirit as Aunt Alda did for me.

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  • Cheryl A. Murphy August 24, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Wonderful.

    Reply